Just over a week ago I was reflecting on one of my first faculty job interviews, way back when (in 1995), that 'went bad' when the search committee chair called up, unannounced, and conducted a 45 minute long non-interview interview while I was eating breakfast. Years later I heard the same department, part of a prominent New Zealand university in the South Island, did this to several other applicants as well.
Memories stirred up, I decide to post a brief tweet about the non-interview interview experience and asked the people who follow my Twitter feed "What’s your terrible/surprising academic job interview memory?." I expected, at the most, 7-10 responses (if I was lucky).
The responses were slow at first, as expected, and then the pace of responses picked up, and up, and up, and here we are now, seven days later, with 220,000+ "impressions" and 28,200+ "total engagements" (in Twitter metrics parlance). Hundreds of people responded in ways that I both expected and did not expect. And there is a geography to these initial responses - mainly people from North America, the UK, and Ireland.
Now those of us who have gone through search process training and managed searches will not be completely surprised at the nature of the responses. But WOW, I was genuinely surprised just how many truly terrible moments if not entire visits were experienced by faculty members when navigating the search process they were invited to participate in.
What were some of the more evident patterns to emerge over the week of fascinating responses? They could be summarized this way, though I am sure you could identify plenty of other patterns:
- Weak if not inept use of email systems to transmit job search invitations. Erroneous invitations.
- Interviews gone bad in conference hotel rooms (think unmade beds, multiple male interviewees & single female candidates, open bathroom doors).
- Frequent questions and glaring hints of inquiry about marital status, pregnancies, children, personal identity (that often start with "I'm not supposed to ask you about this but..."). These questions and hints are overwhelmingly targeted at female candidates.
- Regular comments about body shapes and dress-style, again overwhelmingly targeted at female candidates.
- Group interview visits, including meals together, and sometimes including the presence of other interviewees at job talks. The Hunger Games mentioned more than once.
- Frequent bizarre comments by deans, chairs of departments, and chairs of hiring committees that detract from the core objective of the search process, and throw off candidates' focus (and not in a good way).
- Missing, inaccurate and poorly planned itineraries.
- Meal planning done poorly, if at all, or on behalf of the candidate with no input from the candidate.
- Sleeping members of the audience (including search committee members) at job talks and some interviews.
- Unrealistic sample class lectures where professors or the search committee pretend to be students.
- Squabbling over meal budgets in front of the candidates, as well as under-resourced searches.
- Lack of allocated time for candidates to ask more than a token question.
- Awkward if not unethical management of "diversity" dimensions of searches and candidate visits.
- Late processing of expense claims.
- Erroneous offer and rejection communications. Extremely late and sometimes non-existent updates, with some candidates still waiting for updates years later.
See below for a sample of the hundreds of responses that unexpectedly came through via Twitter. They start with the ones related to what is now my pet peeve (hotel room interviews), and then are randomly stacked up.
The causes associated with these patterns are also worth discussing and debating. Causes range from sexism and patriarchy, through to a remarkable willingness of universities (not to mention associations like the American Economic Association, the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association) to permit hotel rooms to be used as venues for interviews. Bad idea!
There is also an evident lack of common understandings of what the role(s) of search committee members should be when hosting campus visitors, as well as dereliction of duty by all too many search committee chairs. A week of processing all these responses makes me wonder if deans, senior climate/diversity administrators, HR directors, and provosts and presidents should get a summary report on how professionally each and every search was managed. This said, one respondent rightfully explained that job applicants in precarious positions might not want to respond honestly to a post-interview survey, or indeed at all.
On the basis of this unexpected form of public feedback, academia can and must do better. And we should not be allowing the unequal supply-demand relationship to facilitate less than professional behavior. I'm biased, but my own university does a great job in training up search committee chairs and members via initiatives like The Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), including their Searching for Excellence & Diversity®: Workshops for Faculty Search Committees Recruiting and Hiring Faculty and two editions of WISELI's guidebook for search committee members: a national edition and a UW-Madison edition. But we can all do better, even in universities that provide such training.
In closing, I recommend that you pass on this blog to search committee chairs/members, HR staff, and department staff processing expense claims of visiting candidates, and ask them to trawl through all of the responses to my original tweet. It's also worth reflecting on what your department and university is doing to ensure these sorts of experiences never occur on your campus, or in a distant hotel room at a disciplinary or interdisciplinary conference (assuming you work in academia).
Lest I be accused of just focusing on the negative/shocking, don't forget my original prompt was "What’s your terrible/surprising academic job interview memory?"! Given this it's inevitable the responses dealt with so many these bizarre experiences. But it's a festive time of the year, so I tried to include some surprising (in a good way) tweets, and a witty tweet at the very end that was the most 'liked' of all of them.